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Marking Indy’s Monuments and Museums: Colonel Eli Lilly Civil War Museum

This week’s Marking Indy’s Monuments and Museums brings us to the heart of Indianapolis, Monument Circle. I won’t be talking about the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, which is the most recognizable landmark at the intersection of Meridian Street and Market Street. But rather what the Monument sits atop of, the Colonel Eli Lilly Civil War Museum.

In discussing my plans to see what rests below Miss Indiana’s feet,–the 12 foot statue at the very top of the Monument–I realized not too many Hoosiers even know the semi-subterranean Civil War museum existed. Fear not my Circle City Civil War history-hungry friends, I’m here to let you know what you need to know, and maybe a little extra.

I didn’t take in much of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument this time around, in part to focus all of my attention on the Lilly Civil War Museum, but mostly because it is just too cold outside. I will leave this behemoth of a monument for the warmer months ahead, when I can worry about dodging bird droppings instead of falling icicles.

The Colonel Eli Lilly Civil War Museum is often treated like the middle child of the family that is Monument Circle. It is not as impressive as the older, taller Monument perched above, and it is not as modern as the younger, more stylish buildings that encapsulate the center of downtown Indianapolis. While it is not the most impressive Indianapolis museum, by no means does it come off as a Jan Brady.

You should find it easy to locate the museum since it lays in the heart of Indy, the museum entrance itself is another story. It  can easily get lost amongst the Indiana limestone that dominates the circle. Place yourself on the west side of Market Street, with the Indiana State Capitol Building behind you, and you will find the front gate.

As with many of Indy museums, to enter is free, but to donate is divine.

Highlights…

I really appreciate the approach taken at the Colonel Eli Lilly Civil War Museum in telling the history of America’s bloodiest conflict. While giving a good background to what was happening all over the United States of America in the mid-19th century, it takes the direct angle of telling the story through the experiences and words of Indiana men and women.

From the day of enlistment in the Union Army, to the day the South ceased to fight, museum visitors can walk step-by-step with the heros of Indiana‘s past. The museum has a feel and setup that would cater to the attention spans and busy eyes of school children. It snakes its way through the limestone base of the S&S Monument above in narrow hallways. I am sure the design was intended to utilize as much space as possible, but the added bonus of easily corralling Indianapolis children is a cherry on top.

I am always a huge fan when museums include actual artifacts from the time and place they represent. In this area, the Colonel Eli Lilly Civil War Museum gets a solid A. Everywhere you look there are full display cases of remnants from the American Civil War, including a good deal of Colonel Eli Lilly’s own personal effects. They have guns and bullets that helped make this war the bloodiest in American history, and the medical kits that tried to prevent it.

One of the few draw backs of the museum was the constant background noise piped in to accompany the displays. Again, I am sure this is an invaluable tool when keeping the concentration of 50 screaming seventh graders, but it just made me want to hurry through some of the louder displays. Since the museum is in such a confined space, you find yourself listening to the constant beat of the marching drill’s drum, and the firing of cannons during battle. Perhaps this is just a me issue, but I prefer my history quiet.

What I enjoyed the most came at the halfway point of the Eli Lilly Civil War Museum. There is a 3-foot by 5-foot sketching by a man named Thomas O’Dea who served as a Private in Company E, 16th regiment Maine infantry. The sketch is of Andersonville Military Prison on the grounds of Camp Sumter in Georgia, where he was a prisoner of war. The picture was drawn from memory after his release, and depicts the daily hardships the nearly 35,000 northern prisoners faced in this human stockade.

I can’t do this piece of history justice with words alone, but try and imagine a nineteenth century version of “Where’s Waldo” and you can start to get a mental picture. He drew thousands of tiny human figures, with great detail, and depicts over 60 different scenes throughout the picture. From the mundane tasks of waiting in food lines, to the unsettling slaughter of human life, it is all there and all numbered to tell you the viewer how real it was.

There is a bench in front of the sketching, where I easily spent 15 minutes sliding back and forth from the numbered key in one corner that describes the action taking place in another corner. It is not the finest art work you will ever see, but it is definitely fine work.

Things I didn’t know before my visit…

  • One and done: July 9, 1863, marks the day on which the only official battle of the American Civil War took place on Indiana ground. It took place in Corydon, IN, and was unfortunately a victory for the confederates. They shouldn’t have felt too proud of their victory since they were a force 1,800 men strong facing a caught off guard, hastily raised militia of 400 civilians. For more information on this historic skirmish, read this.
  • Think about the children: Something that goes overlooked often from the Civil War era is the state and well being of those left behind when most able bodied men went off to fight the Confederates. The Colonel Eli Lilly Civil War Museum does a great job of showing how these broken families survived while at war. It is a story filled with heart-warming tales of neighbors and towns sacrificing time, money and supplies to keep Indiana going.
  • All employees must wash their hands before returning to the work place: Two out of every three deaths that involved a Union soldier from Indiana was due to diseases contracted in camp, and not wounds sustained on the battlefield. It had to be hard enough to worry about being shot hundreds of miles from your homeland, but to constantly have to try and avoid disease when you were supposed to be safe is a burden no one should have to carry.
  • Fashionable Footwear: The American Civil War changed the world of shoe production forever. The high demand for shoes pushed skilled cobblers to go modern and invest in stitching machines to increase shoe production for the ten of thousands of barefoot Union soldiers. A true professional could manufacture two to three pairs of shoes a day during the 1800s. The early stitching machines could produce the equivalent number in just two hours. Shoes were just one of the many necessary items that the Union and Confederate Armies lacked on a massive scale. But, when your only mode of transportation was the two sticks your toes are attached to, shoes become top priority.
  • Lets get serious: Before the American Civil War broke out, Eli Lilly was a Greencastle, IN, resident known best for his socializing habits. When war broke out, he felt duty bound to grow up and lead. It was during the Civil War where he gained moderate fame and a reputation for being a true leader of men. After the war, he took the lessons he learned in organization and medicine to create one of the biggest Indiana businesses, and pharmaceutical world leaders, Eli Lilly and Company.

Tour Guide Mark’s Favorite Part of the Museum…

Since I was my own leader of man on this day, I will consider myself as my own personal tour guide–man that’s a lot of possessives. As stated earlier, my favorite part of the Colonel Eli Lilly Civil War Museum was Thomas O’Dea’s sketching. Something else I found interesting about this museum was the unavoidable feeling of cool you get when you take a second to stop and think about where you are. You are standing in the middle of a thriving metropolis, taking in the scenery while a world of busy surrounds you.

Lasting Impression…

I’ve wanted to visit the Eli Lilly Civil War Museum since the day I discovered it existed. This is largely due to my love of all things historical, but something about the museum’s location called to me as well. It is not the first place I would bring an out-of-town guest, but I would not shy away from it either. I enjoyed the local perspective it applied to the Civil War, for nothing serves as a better learning tool than your own local history.

When museums choose to focus on such detailed parts of history, they take a risk. But in doing so, they offer their visitors a perspective that no Smithsonian can provide. It is a personable museum with a great deal of historically accurate artifacts which do nothing but aid one’s desire for learning. This museum is strong enough in content to serve as both a supplement to, or cornerstone of a visitor’s American Civil War knowledge. It is a great–and free–way to spend an afternoon. Take an hour to walk the museum, another 30 minutes to explore the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, and finish off with a nice meal at any of the local Indianapolis restaurants.

The most beneficial aspect of the Colonel Eli Lilly Civil War Museum is that it not only teaches visitors about one of the defining moments in American history, but it approaches the subject as one of the defining moments of Indianapolis’ history.

Location: Monument Circle- Indianapolis, Indiana
Fee: Free
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday- Sunday

Each week I will take a look into the history of Indianapolis through the eyes of a different Circle City Monument or Museum. If you have any comments, questions or would like to suggest your favorite Indy house of history, drop me a line below, or e-mail me at mcline@funcityfinder.com.

Mark Cline

Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument
Monument Circle
Indianapolis, IN 46204
317.232.7615
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